This is the story of Arthur's farthings. Arthur was my maternal grandfather, a small baker who married above his station - the family of my grandmother Phyllis strongly objected to the match - but who, with his new wife, bought up and ran a very profitable string of cafés across Kent in the 1920s. Arthur Rose was passionate about bowls - he was a member of the English bowls team (chief qualification: lots of money) - and was playing his favourite game in Australia when what our local Maidstone doctor had claimed was arthritis forced him to fly back to England. Wrong diagnosis. Arthur had cancer of the bone.
The farthing - about the same size of a euro cent - was a quarter of an old penny. There were 12 pennies in a shilling and 20 shillings to the pound. Today, I reckon the farthing would be worth about 1,000th of a pound. Old British coins seemed very warlike to me; they appeared to be obsessed with crowns and portcullises and warships. I always preferred the Irish equivalent; the currency of "Eire" was embossed with birds and pigs and horses and harps. The Empire of Power versus the Empire of the Farmyard. But the friendly old British farthing - perhaps because it had so little value - carried the image of a diminutive wren.
Back to Arthur. Phyllis was "Nana" to me but Arthur - through a two-year-old Robert's misunderstanding of "Grandpa" - became "Gabba". He was a canny man, devoted to Phyllis but reputedly stingy. After family lunch on Boxing Day, Phyllis would always secretly press a £20 note into my hand, an enormous amount of money for which I had to promise her that I would never tell "Gabba". Then Arthur would appear, flourish a £5 note in front of the entire family and with great publicity hand it to me. "Gosh, thank you Gabba," crafty little Robert would say loudly, ensuring a total of £25 next Christmas. Phyllis died of cancer when I was about 10 but when Arthur died some four years later, my mother Peggy and her sister found dozens of cheques in Arthur's drawer, all signed by Phyllis as gifts to her husband, all uncashed. They thought this was a sign of his refusal to spend money. I suspected it was a gesture of love.
Only when he was dying did I really come to like Arthur. He encouraged me to be a journalist - my father was against it - and loved listening to my classical records as he lay in bed. He would sing the Volga Boatmen and, before he became too ill, he taught me to chop down trees. He treated me as a grown-up, which is what all small boys want. He loved his daughters and he admired my dad, Bill, and heard me many times telling Peggy that I was bored or saw me interrupting Bill's television viewing of the Test match. "Robert needs something to do," he said. So he ordered 3,000 farthings from the bank; they arrived at our home in Rectory Lane in currency sacks. Arthur walked into our large garden on his crutches and hurled them by the hundred on to the flower beds, behind bushes, around trees, over the long grass in the apple orchard. "Now, if you find them all," he announced to his acquisitive grandson, "I'll give you three pound notes."
In heavy rain or blistering sun, I spent weeks during Arthur's dying years searching through the long grass and the flower beds for his farthings. At first, I collected them daily, by the cupful; then weekly, by the handful. A moment of boredom and Bill and Peggy would send me back into the garden to search again. I might find three or four a week.
But of course, as the years went by and the rains swept across Kent, some of the coins slipped deeper into the soil to poison the roots of my mother's flowers. Others were washed into the flower borders and then moved gently across the flooded lawns. Years after Arthur's death, my father would be pushing the hand-mower over the lawn and there would be a metallic crack and Peggy and I would arrive to find Bill standing beside the machine with its broken blade. "It must have been another of Arthur's damned farthings," he'd say. Peggy even found one, around 1996, buried in the thick branch of a tree, six feet above the ground. After her death, I sold Rectory Lane and when I passed by recently, I noticed that the new owners have built an extension over the lawn; I have no doubt that somewhere beneath its concrete foundations, those little brass wrens are rotting quietly away.
But I wonder now whether those farthings don't symbolise the legacy of Lord Blair of Kut al-Amara, the man who allowed New Labour to give Britain new dreams to occupy itself with. It all seemed quite harmless. Originally, many believed in him. Parliament even sanctioned the illegal war in Iraq because it trusted him, a decision that has cost more than half a million lives. No, unlike Blair, Arthur never lied. He once announced that he would refuse to pay his local taxes on the grounds that he would rather keep the money for himself (a decision he changed after discovering that Maidstone's borough treasurer - who happened to be my father Bill - would have to take him to court). But Arthur happily sowed his money around our garden, little realising that for years after his demise, his legacy would rise up to break our mower blades and blight my mother's flowers and embed itself in the bark of trees.
Lord Blair's legacy, I fear, will be the same. Long after he has written his self-serving memoirs - indeed, long after he has himself gone to the great White House in the sky - we will find that his political legacy continues to haunt and poison the Middle East and the governance of the United Kingdom.
I never did get to cash in Arthur's coins, of course. He died, in terrible agony, in Maidstone's West Kent Hospital - "I wish I could drink something that would send me to sleep for ever," he told a weeping Peggy - long before I had even collected 500 of his "damned" farthings. I wouldn't wish such a fate on Lord Blair. But I wonder what our fate has to be.Reuse content